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First Words

When Beth Frascatore's grandson asked, "Where's the moat?" she was startled. "Has his mom been reading to him about castles?" she wondered. It was an unusual word for a child who'd just turned 3.

Then she realized what Connor meant. "Oh, the remote," she said to him. "The remote is on the nightstand."

Frascatore did effortlessly what she learned in her years as an elementary-school speech-language pathologist. She didn't tell Connor he was wrong; instead, she repeated the idea, emphasizing the right word.

Fortunately, you don't need the benefit of a speech-language degree to help your child master speech. A fundamental understanding of the process  -- and a dash of parental intuition  -- are all that's required to ignite excitement for his growing ability to communicate.

Of course, learning to speak is more than saying the first word. It's learning to make an "f" sound, to put "don't" in the right place, to use the future tense. Up until age 5, children pick up these lessons at a furious pace. They learn in set stages  -- though not all kids get there at the same time  -- and the sequence is more important than the actual age at which each stage happens. There's little you can do to hold your child up, but much you can do to make his voyage fun and easy for both of you.

Beth Whitehouse was part of a 1997 Pulitzer prize-winning team at Newsday, where she is an editor. She is the mother of Tristan, 3.

Birth to 4 Months: Crying to Be Heard

For nine months, the fetus tunes in to the boom box of the womb: Mom's voice. A baby is born with a language instinct, as surely as it's born with the instincts to eat, walk, and breathe, says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Temple University, in Philadelphia.

Although this may be small comfort as you brave a torrent of squalling at 2 A.M., your baby makes his first effort to communicate with his cries. Soon he'll realize that if he whines, you'll change his wet diaper, and if he wails, you'll feed him. He shapes his cries to express how much he wants something, even if it's by subtle differences in their intensity levels.

You're in for delightful interaction as well, as he soon also communicates his contentment by cooing: "'Ooh. Ahh.' Like you do at fireworks," says Hirsh-Pasek.

4 to 7 Months: Baby Talk Grows Up

Don't be surprised if after setting your 4- or 5-month-old down for a nap one day, you suddenly hear a lighthearted monologue. "Babababa, dadadada," she might announce to her teddy bear. She'll rattle on if you are present or not, repeating the same syllable over and over.

And while it's far too early to have to spell out B-O-T-T-L-E to fool her, there's no doubt she's soaking up the sounds that make up the strange new words she's hearing. This is perhaps the only thing your baby can do better than you: She can easily hear the differences between sounds until around 6 to 7 months of age, says Erica Stevens, Ph.D., with the department of speech and hearing sciences of the University of Washington, in Seattle. "At 10 to 12 months, babies become more adept at filtering out sounds that aren't going to be important to them," Stevens says.

If you feel silly when you catch yourself talking in that high-pitched, singsongy voice  -- "Look sweetie, a puhr-pull diii-noh-sore," as you make her Barney doll dance  -- it's worth the sacrifice of your dignity. Parents help their children pick up sounds by speaking in an exaggerated gush that experts call "parentese," which involves stretching out vowels and carefully articulating every single little sound.

7 to 10 Months: Oral Calisthenics

At about 7 months, your baby will start to sound like Pebbles Flintstone, using more advanced babbling, which includes a variety of consonants and vowels  -- "bagabeedaboodah, bagamabadagooda," for instance. This vocal play will often sound quite conversational, if incomprehensible. It's really just practice, as if your baby is taking his mouth to the gym to give it a workout.

Sometimes children can communicate with gestures before they can get a word out, and parents can capitalize on that. Judith Becker Bryant, of Tampa, taught her then 8-month-old son, Samuel, the sign for ceiling fan (to raise his right hand in the air, point his index finger upward, and rotate his upper arm), as well as the signs for motorcycle and alligator. "Those just aren't likely things he could pronounce," Bryant says, but she was still able to get great joy out of her "talks" with him.

10 to 12 Months: A Word!

In Latin, "infant" means "without speech." So it is usually around a baby's first birthday  -- when he leaves infancy behind  -- that he says his first word. But just because he's speaking doesn't mean he'll hit every letter on its linguistic head. He might, for instance, drop the last consonant off a word. He won't try to be more precise until he reaches 2 or 3.

Darrien Lynn, of Guilford, CT, noticed her daughter, Taylor, had difficulty pronouncing a number of her earliest words. Her first word after "Dada" was "Big Bird," which sounded like "bee-bir," a slurred sound she made as she pointed to her Big Bird stuffed animal or the character on TV.

A warning on that much-anticipated first word: If your baby identifies a Big Bird stuffed animal but doesn't recognize him on TV or on the poster over his changing table, it's not really his first word, according to linguists. For it to qualify, he has to apply it in more than one context. Hirsh-Pasek cites the example of her then 11-month-old son Josh's first word, said when he was in the garden. "He suddenly took a flower, handed it to me, and said, 'Flur.' I said, 'Yes, a flower.'" Later, he saw a flower on a tissue box and said, "Flur." Then he pointed to the bedspread and said, "Flur." Three flurs, three correct identifications.

Long before your baby blurts out anything you can understand, he's listening to you and others closely, absorbing what you say, and breaking it down into clues that will help him crack the code of adult language. Anyone who's listened to an unfamiliar language knows how hard it is to separate one word from the next; your tiny baby is concentrating hard to pick out individual words from the conversational stream that's zipping by him.

One interesting but critical transition occurs at around this point: A baby can now match words to entire categories, rather than just to specific entities. In other words, he'll see a poodle, learn that it's a dog, and assimilate that knowledge so that when he sees a German shepherd, he still thinks, "dog." That explains why a baby might see a male stranger, point, and say "Daddy," according to Sandra Waxman, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Northwestern University.

12 to 18 Months: Only a Parent Understands

For parents, the word "cookie" has one meaning  -- a sweet baked thing we try not to eat too many of. But once a baby has mastered the art of saying any word, she will get a lot of mileage out of it by using it to express a variety of thoughts. To her, "cookie" can mean "that's a cookie," "I want a cookie," or even, "I dropped my cookie." You should expect to be somewhat bewildered at times  -- just because you understand her word doesn't mean you know what she's trying to tell you.

In all likelihood, your toddler will still babble and gesture, and that will help you decipher her intentions. A new word might even be mixed in with the babble  -- "bagabeeda juice," for instance. The best way to continue exposing a child to language is to seize on whatever activity she's doing. If she's watching a garbage collector on the street, talk to her about the truck and the garbage pails rather than divert her attention to teach her about animals. Reading to her also enhances her vocabulary.

It's fine to act as an interpreter for your toddler, since you'll best understand a truncated or mispronounced word. But constantly correcting is one of the worst things you can do. "If everything you say is wrong, what do you do? You shut up," says Hirsh-Pasek.

One way to introduce vocabulary and concepts at this point is to elaborate constantly. If your child says, "Doggie," for instance, you might say, "Oh, yes, that's a big, brown doggie." Then you've given your baby two valuable gifts: She will realize you understand her, and you've tossed her an extra piece of information.

By 18 months, most toddlers' vocabularies are pushing 50 words (though don't be surprised if your child uses a word a few times and then abandons it for a while). For some kids that 50-word benchmark is also around the time they learn to combine words. But for most, putting two words together  -- such as "more juice"  -- will happen at around age 2.

18 Months to 2 Years: Verbal Boom

Get ready for a vocabulary explosion  -- your toddler will soon be learning words faster than you can track them, and by the time you put two candles on her birthday cake, she may be able to say "give cake" or "big toy."

There's no need to be concerned if she's still saying "nana" for banana. Most children this age make the bare minimum sound they need to label something; the coordination of their lips, teeth, and tongue is not sophisticated enough for pronouncing many words correctly.

2 to 3 Years: In the Realm of the Sentences

One day this year, your child will pipe up with something you probably haven't heard from him before  -- a three-word sentence. "Me love Mommy," he might say. Or maybe it will be somewhat less touching, such as "Blue ball mine!"

Either way, this marks the beginning of his ability to express complex thoughts, which in turn necessitates more complicated  -- and better organized  -- use of the language. The word for this is "grammar," and your child will soon start to use it on his own  -- though not always correctly. For instance, he'll probably express the negative by putting "No" in front of a statement, such as, "No go outside." By 2 1/2, he'll start to move the "no" inside the sentence, saying things such as "I no like it." Pronouns will come out incorrectly, too: "Me playing," for instance. He'll probably master some question words  -- what, where, and who  -- but harder concepts, such as when or why, which require an understanding of time or long explanations, will come later.

Don't worry about correcting grammatical mistakes. Just speak as you always do, and your child will figure it out on his own.

3 to 4 Years: Converse All-Stars

Before age 3, children use speech primarily to get what they want or need. It's after the third birthday  -- after the basics are nailed down  -- that kids become more conversational for the pleasure of communication.

It's during this year that "flur" turns into "flower," "deat" sounds more like "seat," and "Bee-bir" clearly becomes "Big Bird." As pronunciation becomes more accurate, grammar also continues to get more precise.

Keep in mind that there will be some normal setbacks. While your daughter used to say "went," she may now start to say "goed." It's perfectly natural  -- as kids grasp the "ed" rule of the past tense, they start to make mistakes, even though they previously used it correctly.

Many children also start to use sentences with two verbs around this time, although they're not experts until they're 4. For instance, instead of "I want juice," they might say, "I want the juice what you drinking."

4 to 5 Years: Speaker of the House

This is "By George, I think he's got it" time. Children now begin to more consistently use language correctly. They'll put "can't" and "don't" in the right place. Instead of "Here my coat," they'll say, "Here is my coat."

And by age 5, most children can manipulate the language, going beyond developing vocabulary and sentence structure to being able to use language to express feelings and thoughts in conversation.

It's a miracle how it all happens, says Frascatore. And while she has enjoyed decoding all of her grandchildren's utterances as they've mastered the ins and outs of talking, Frascatore says "it's the conversations with them in the future I look forward to."